Friday 20 August 2010

Friday Flash - Captain Karaoke

Here's my attempt for this week's Fiction Friday challenge on the Write Anything blog, also submitted to the Friday Flash collection. Prompt #169 was;

The note taped to the door said: See you at Wild Notes Karaoke Bar.

"Well I don't know about you, Thusie, but I've had a damn good night," said Captain Scarlight. He swayed along the quay towards their ship.

I do wish you wouldn't keep referring to me as Thusie. My name is Methuselah, said the parrot on his shoulder. Being telepathic, Methuselah didn't need to speak out loud. The captain screwed up his face as the parrot's words echoed around his brain.

"Don't talk to me in my head like that, you know it confuses me."

It is the only way we may maintain a conversation.

"Pah, I don't want to talk to you anyway," said the captain. "All you ever do is tell me off for drinking and being merry."

That's because all you ever do is drink and be merry.

"That is not true, not at all!"

The captain stumbled up the plank to the ship. He tripped onto the deck, driving his knee into the wooden boards. He yelped in pain.

Indeed, Captain, you are as sober as a judge.

The captain threw an evil look at Methuselah. He hauled himself to his feet and tottered up the steps to the next deck. A piece of paper fluttered against the door to his quarters.

"What's this?" he said. He pulled the paper from its pin, and squinted to read the awkward handwriting. The note simply said: See you at Wild Notes Karaoke Bar.

"Oh-ho! A karaoke bar!" Captain Scarlight grinned.

What on earth is a karaoke bar?

"It's just a pub with a house band. They play songs you know, and you get up and sing them," replied the captain.

I do hope you are not planning on attending.

"I have to! Look, I've been invited." The captain waved the note at Methuselah.

The captain spun on his heel and wobbled back down the deck. Methuselah flew past him. He let an air current carry him to a bollard on the quay. A karaoke bar sounded like his idea of hell, but he felt obliged to accompany the captain. Lord knows what might occur if Captain Scarlight went unchaperoned.

"Come on, Thusie, it'll be fun!"

You have already spent four hours in the local watering hole with your men. Why must you go elsewhere?

"Pah!" replied the captain.

Methuselah thought it best not to ask how the captain knew the location of the karaoke bar. It made life easier not to question, or even understand, his bizarre ways.

Wild Notes Karaoke Bar squatted at the end of an alley filled with trash. Ancient handbills papered its stone walls between narrow windows. The captain yanked open the door and sound poured out into the alley. Raucous laughter and bad music filled the air. The captain plunged into the sea of bodies.

A four-piece band stood on the small stage. They fought their way through an old sea shanty. What they lacked in ability, they made up for in boundless enthusiasm. One musician used a stick and three strands of rope attached to a box as a double bass, and he plucked the strings with gusto. A man lurched and rolled in front of them. His tuneless caterwauling hurt Methuselah's ears. He fluttered across the bar to land on the captain's shoulder.

"Ah, my kind of place!" said Captain Scarlight. He caught the barkeeper's attention and ordered a drink.
A young man sidled up to the captain. A gold ring dangled from his left ear, and a scar twisted up his cheek into his hair. Methuselah recognised him from the ship. The parrot looked past him and saw several of the younger crew members further down the bar. They gazed at the captain in awe.

"You got our note then?" said the pirate.

"Ah-ha! Jonno! I did indeed! Very good choice of venue, my boy," said the captain. He thumped Jonno on the shoulder and laughed. Jonno grinned, but rubbed his shoulder when the captain looked away.

"Rex met a wench at the last pub and she told us about this place. We thought you'd like it," said Jonno.

"And I do indeed. Have you boys had a go yet?" The captain gestured to the stage. The drunk man sat in a heap in front of the stage, his place taken by a swarthy man in red. He crooned an old classic, drowned out by the band.

"No, we're too nervous. But we wondered if you would?"

"Of course I will! Where do I sign up?"

"No need, sir. Our current customer was the last to volunteer. If you want to go next, just wait at the bottom of the stage," said the barkeeper.

"Splendid!" roared the captain. He pushed his way through the crowd to the stage. The boys from the ship loitered by the bar. Methuselah perched on a beer tap.

The crooner left the stage, shaking his head. The band helped Captain Scarlight up onto the stage. They conferred for several moments before the captain turned to the crowd. A hush fell over the bar.

"My good gentlemen, and lovely wenches!" said the captain. The crowd cheered.

Please, Captain, do not do this.

The captain glared at Methuselah across the bar. He held up his hand for silence. Methuselah stole a glance at the crew. They stood transfixed. The captain dropped his hand and the band broke into tuneless song. The crowd whooped and cheered as the captain shouted his way through the first verse. Methuselah shook his head in disbelief when the captain reached the chorus.

"Did you ever know that you're my heeeeee-rooooooo? And everything I would like to beeeeeeeeee? See, I can fly higher than an eeeeeeeeagle, and you are the wind beneath my wiiiiiiiiiings!"

* * * 

Captain Scarlight and Methuselah have appeared before in two previous Friday Flash outings! Check out Pieces O' Eight and Polly Wants A Cracker.

Tuesday 17 August 2010

Einstein did say that time is all relative

I follow an awful lot of blogs, and I have to admit that I'm a very big fan of Dan Goodwin's A Big Creative Yes blog. I love his writing style, and the fact that he manages to encapsulate such common sense advice that can be applied to so many creative endeavours. So when I came across his post about developing creative motivation, it really struck a nerve with me, for two reasons. Firstly, I feel like I don't do enough writing myself, and secondly, it seems like not many other people do, either.

I don't do enough writing myself
I write my Friday flashes and my ongoing serial every week without fail, and I sometimes even work on separate flashes or short stories on top of these. I'm also in the process of editing my first novel, Fowlis Westerby. Still, I feel like I could be doing more. I have the time to write, I just get easily distracted. My problem is not necessarily one of motivation, more one of attention span. Once I get into the "writing zone" I can keep writing until something intrudes, but getting into that zone is tricky. I've already talked about 'unplugging' before as a way to eliminate distractions, so I'm taking small steps towards utilising the time I have. But if I don't write, then I have no one to blame but myself.

You tell me you'd love to write, but don't have the time
I'm often struck by quite how many people I know want to write. Some of them are writers, and they work hard on novels, flashes and serials. They fit all of this in around day jobs, or busy family lives. They are writers because, quite simply, they write. However, many people tell me they'd love to write, or "get back into writing", but they don't have the time. It's a common complaint, but it just tells me they don't really want to be writers. They like the idea of it, but the theory is more attractive than the practice. They're "far too busy" to squeeze in ten minutes of scribbling. Doesn't sound like they really want to do it, if you ask me.

Snatch time
Yes, I know you have a day job. So do I. Australian writer Benjamin Solah tackled this very subject on his blog recently. Now, I have quite a draining day job, and I often find I feel too tired to write when I finally get home at 7pm, so I snatch time where I can. I have an hour's lunchbreak - sixty whole minutes of writing time! Half of my hour-long commute to and from work is spent simply sitting on a tube train, so I grab writing time then.

Get creative
To start with, you only need to fit in a short period of writing. Even ten minutes is enough to get you used to making writing a part of your daily life. If you use public transport, you can write there instead of pulling out a paperback. Write in short bursts during the advert breaks of your favourite TV show. Schedule a ten minute writing session instead of gossiping on the phone. Wake up ten minutes earlier, and write before you go out. Skip watching that trashy soap and use the time to write instead. Hell, even write on the toilet - at least you know you won't be disturbed (I hope).

Give yourself permission to write
If you were an athlete, or an actor, or a musician, then you wouldn't hesitate in giving up time to practice or train. No one thinks twice if someone gets up at the crack of dawn to go swimming for an hour before work, and if someone spends their Tuesday evenings at a drama class, no one thinks any the less of them. Hell, even artists are given the time and space to be arty without anyone giving them any grief. But writers often feel silly asking for the room to write. Why? Is it because, realistically, the only equipment you need is a pencil and a piece of paper? Are we somehow maligned because our chosen vocation can be done anywhere, therefore we don't need to be left alone to do it? Well, as silly or uncomfortable as you might feel asking not to be disturbed for half an hour, or trying to justify why you can't stay for that last drink because you want to go home to write, it's what you're going to have to do if you want to write. It's a sacrifice, but you never get anything for nothing.

It's only because I love you
Maybe this all sounds incredibly harsh, but I'm only being cruel to be kind. If you want to write, then you will. You'll find a way. If you still feel that you can't spare the time...maybe take up something else. Writing isn't something you'd like to do - it's something that you must do.

The image for this post is by Col Adamson, and can be found in its original home here.

Sunday 15 August 2010

Rude Britannia

Spitting Image's Margaret Thatcher
I've been meaning to see the Rude Britannia exhibition at the Tate Britain since it opened, and I thought that as it only has a few weeks left to run (it closes on 5 September), I should probably make the effort to go. So off I trotted to the Millbank gallery to see their collection of satirical cartoons, exploring British comic art from the 1600s to now.

Despite the main focus being on comic art, the exhibition includes examples from a huge range of different media and styles that have been used over the past four centuries. Allegory and caricature abound here, as the work ranges from ceramics and prints to the comic books and strips we recognise today. Understandably, there is an emphasis on social satire and politics, since these were such rich veins for the comic artists of early centuries to mine.

From 'A Rake's Progress', by William Hogarth
Room 2 focusses on the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, particularly 'Social Satire & The Grotesque'. Consumer society as we would recognise it began to expand in the 1770s, due in part to industrialisation and Britain's growing Empire. The fashions and fads of this new consumerist boom provided rich fodder for the comic artists, who lampooned the greed and depravity in their grotesque satire. The British printmaker William Hogarth was particularly prolific in the 1700s, and he has been credited with the invention of the comic strip, due to his use of sequential art. One of his most famous works came in 1735 when he published A Rake's Progress, eight panels that tell the story of a foolish youth who squanders his inheritance, and spends the rest of his life sinking into debauchery and debt, only to end his days in Bedlam.

The third room deals with the political caricature. Ever since the eighteen century, everyone from politicians and royals to celebrities have been the target for comics, cartoons and strips. The battles between William Pitt the Younger and Charles Fox provide the most material for the eighteenth century, while Napoleon, Gladstone and Disraeli are the main focus for the nineteenth century. The room also displays some truly astonishing satire featuring Hitler, Margaret Thatcher and John Major. My own personal favourites are the works concerning Tony Blair, particularly a photo of him allowing George Bush to stand on his back in order to climb onto a horse. Says it all, really.

Sexual humour and the concept of the absurd are also featured, although to a much lesser extent. To be honest, I'm scarcely surprised. The supposed 'humour' of the 'Bawdry' room is beyond crass, while the material representing the Absurd is just pointless. I fail to see the point of a taxidermied cat in a glass case holding up a sign saying "I'm Dead". Anyway.

I think one of the reasons why satire has always survived in comic format is that the medium carries the visual weight required for the 'punchlines' to have their intended effect. Political or satirical fiction can occasionally run the risk of appearing sanctimonious or patronising at best, and downright impenetrable at worse, but the cartoon carries the point quickly and effectively. A great deal of detail can be included in a single panel, using recognised symbolism as a form of visual shorthand. A Rake's Progress perfectly epitomises this point, as the activities of those around the Rake hint at what has led him to the point at which we find him in each panel.

Another reason the comic panel proved so popular was precisely because it was visual. While many of the older examples contain a lot of text, and the comic as we know it today usually involves dialogue, it is still possible to understand what is going on without being able to read. Printing shops used to display the panels in their windows, and people of all classes could view them for free. The fact that they were visual democratised their consumption, as opposed to the books which were accessible only to the rich and the educated. In some ways, their subject matter intended them to be instructional to the masses, but as the bad behaviour on display in the panels continued to occur, then this aspect was clearly largely ignored by the viewers.

We still have comics today, although I would argue that the emphasis has shifted, and when people think of comics now, they're more likely to think of something like Iron Man or Batman than Punch or Viz. Satire has largely moved onto the stage and screen, with TV shows like Spitting Image and the many shows featuring impressionist Rory Bremner using the capabilities of TV to put out satire in sketch format. Even comedies like Blackadder set out to lampoon current affairs using historical events as a reference point. The purpose is the same, to highlight the absurdity and hypocrisy of politicians, royals and celebrities, and like their eighteenth century forebears, the TV sketches require little education, and nothing more than a passing awareness of current events.

Of course, the advantage that both the comic and the sketch have is that even if you don't agree with the politics or the subject, you can still find them amusing, due to the employment of humour, and it is this which I believe makes satire such an important aspect of culture in general. As Ivor `Jest-ye-not-madam' Biggun of the Standing-At-The-Back-Dressed-Stupidly-And-Looking-Stupid Party in Blackadder III so memorably put it... "If you can't laugh, what can you do?"